Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A meaty book from Derry

Planning to be in Northern Ireland for America's birthday? Get yourself to Easons, Foyleside in Derry from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. July Fourth to join Garbhan Downey in celebrating the release of his novel War of the Blue Roses.
"The subject is roses," Detectives Beyond Borders wrote in April, "specifically a competition to design a peace garden for the White House – and if you think gardening is a clean pursuit, this book will shock you. Downey brings back some of the characters from his previous books, tough, savvy, engaging and, in some cases, unscrupulous folks from Ireland north and south, and he throws in Americans and Englishmen this time. These last give Downey fresh new satirical targets."
Newly pertinent professional ethics prevent me from saying much more about the book, but I hope you'll find the proofreading satisfactory.

Here's what I've written about Roses and Downey's four previous books of political crime comedy (His Yours Confidentially made my short list of best international crime fiction published in 2008).

And here's Downey's Web site for info about the books, a promotional video for War of the Blue Roses, and some covers that will make you smile.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Interview with the master, Part II: Bill James on dialogue, gleeful savagery, and crime fiction vs. detective fiction

In Part II of his interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Bill James talks about dialogue, jokes, crime writing versus detective writing, and a parallel that a fellow writer drew between his books and Jacobean drama. He also makes a surprising choice for the Harpur & Iles character with whom he identifies most closely.

Click here for a Bill James bibliography, including non-Harpur & Iles books. Click here for books he has written under the name David Craig. Under his own name — James Tucker — Bill James wrote a study of the novelist Anthony Powell, author of A Dance to the Music of Time.

(Read Part I of the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James here.)


Q: Ken Bruen told an interviewer in 2004 that “I abandoned British crime years ago except for Bill James, who I love. ... His Iles and Harpur series is magnificent.” Peter Temple called you “a star.” John Harvey and Val McDermid are just two more crime writers who have rhapsodized about your work. What in your writing so attracts your fellow writers?

A: I don’t know why these writers think well of my books, except where they’ve published their comments. But I’m very grateful. I’d like to think it’s the jokes, two or three of which during the twenty-five novels are original. Well, two. John Harvey in the Guardian said the novels had a Jacobean drama feel to them. A sort of gleeful savagery, I think he meant.

It’s not all praise from other authors. Someone said the books were lightweight. I don’t think it was meant as a compliment, though it could be a half-compliment. After all, what’s the opposite: deadweight, overweight? Another writer-reviewer said, `Not much detection here.' Guilty, my lord. I think I’m a crime writer, not a detective novelist, although my two principal characters are detectives. They have other things to do.

Q: Panicking Ralph Ember is a drug dealer. He is at various times a coward, a blowhard, and a cheater on his wife. He also vies with Iles as the most memorable character in the series, and he is pretty likable, even charming for all his faults. Tell me about the genesis of Panicking Ralph. Why does he work as a character? And what makes him so lovable?

A: Ralph has pathetically and comically unachievable ambitions, like most of us: he hopes to change his lowlife club into the Athenaeum. He takes fright easily, as do many of us. He strives to keep up appearances, as do many of us. A French interviewer asked me if I was Colin Harpur. I said, no, I’m Panicking Ralph. Perhaps readers also feel an affinity.

Q: One distinctive feature of your dialogue is the elliptical cross-talk mainly between Harpur and Iles, but also between Harpur and other characters. They talk around each other, answering questions the other did not ask, ignoring ones that are asked. Talk about this technique, your models (if any) for it, and what it adds to the characters and the books.

A: I tend to get bored reading books where the dialogue is very sequential and reasonable. I like the talk to obscure at least as much as it tells. I don’t want the reader dozing off, so I introduce the seeming breaks from sense. Sub-Pinter? Again, guilty, my lord. Opaque dialogue can be an avoidance of a troublesome topic. The reader would spot that it’s troublesome, which means the dialogue is doing its job while appearing not to. People may be obsessed with their own concerns and will try to dominate the conversation to get these across, despite the other person’s probable wish to do the same. We get a nice helping of chaos, evasion, dead-ends, just like at home.

Q: You’ve said that you wrote the first book, You’d Better Believe It, without planning to write a series. What got you thinking about a series?

A: The first book got very few reviews and they came late. I’d already started another, The Lolita Man. The title rang literary bells. The critics woke up. It had a bucketful of good notices. Iles had appeared and seemed ready for development. Even then, I certainly wouldn’t have expected the books to go to number twenty-six (this autumn – Hotbed).

Q: The most recent Harpur and Iles novel introduces a new character and omits a familiar one. Why the changes? Was it a stroke of mischief to write a book in which Harpur does not appear and call that book In the Absence of Iles?

A: Yes, I suppose a kind of mischief. I’d introduced a new detective in a book called Tip Top, written under another of my pen names, David Craig. This is Esther Davidson. I wanted to give her another outing, and brought her over to the Bill James stable. She features in another book due out in Britain in September, Full Of Money.

Incidentally, you mention Anthony Powell. In Full Of Money a couple of crooks are big Powell fans. One of the baddies has done a lot of jail and needed a long novel for distraction. Powell`s twelve-volume work, A Dance to the Music of Time, suited. He refers to it as A Dance to the Music of Doing Time.

(Read Part I of the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Take a trip to Heian Japan and win a book ... and we have a winner!

I.J. Parker sets her series about the official-cum-investigator Sugawara Akitada in eleventh-century Japan, part of that country's Heian period. That long, peaceful era is known among other things for its exquisite, refined courtly literature.

Perhaps that's why Parker opens The Convict's Sword, sixth book in the series, with a squalid encounter, a shabby quarter and a brutal killing – a nice counterpoint to the expectations that her readers may have of the period.

Any author of historical mysteries must balance the history and the mystery, to entertain while remaining reasonably faithful to the historical period, to portray the period without writing a travel brochure or a textbook. Near the novel's beginning, Parker nicely integrates the sword maker, a staple figure in Japanese art, into the story and rather gracefully suggests the respect with which he regards his craft:

"Akitada received the sword and turned to Sukenari. `Please forgive my friend. He's very enthusiastic and forgets his manners when his heart is moved.'

"`I understand. Mine is moved in the same way. The gods dwell in that blade.'"
The Heian period is unusual in at least one respect: Its best-known authors are women. I'll send a copy of The Convict's Sword to the first person who tells me the name of either one of the Heian's two best-known writers and the work for which she is known today.
We have a winner! A reader from British Columbia knew that one of the titles was that beguiling book of aesthetic contemplation, refined complaining and palace gossip, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. The other is The Tale of Genji of Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Your prize will be on its way soon. Enjoy it, and thanks to all who entered.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Interview with the master, Part I: Detectives Beyond Borders talks with Bill James

Some of us remember where we were when John F. Kennedy was shot or World War II ended; I remember where I was when I first read Bill James. I was having coffee and a scone and passing the time of day at my local secondhand bookshop when the owner said, "Hey, you might like this" and handed me Roses, Roses, tenth novel in James' Harpur & Iles series.

Two pages in, I was Siddhartha Gautama under the bodhi tree. I was Hugh Hefner at that magical moment when his mother said, "Hugh! Stop studying so much. Go find a nice girl." I read a third of the book, brushed the crumbs from my upper lip, and said: "I'll take it."

James' world of cops and criminals is rich, dark and often very funny. And it offers some of the most gorgeous prose ever set to paper in crime or any other kind of fiction:

"If you knew how to look, a couple of deaths from the past showed now and then in Iles' face."
"To her, garrotting looked a sinister, damnable skill; in fact a kind of art, a kind of filthy art, and Iles had about him much of the good third/fourth-rate artist: arrogance, contempt for usual social and possibly legal standards, some flair, some posturing, some taste, some vision, and the irresistible impulse to create, or its complementary and sometimes necessary opposite, to wipe out."
Hotbed, twenty-sixth novel in the series, will appear this fall. In the first of a two-part interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Bill James talks about his rich, dark world, the people who populate it, and why he chose two high-ranking police officers as his protagonists rather than the more conventional workaday cops.

(Read Part II of the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James here.)
Q: The first Colin Harpur novel appeared in 1985, and Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles came along a bit later. What else was going on in British crime fiction at the time? What did you set out to do differently? Other than Anthony Powell, what writers haunted your imagination?

A: Most crime fiction deals with police at low or middling rank. I aimed to show two very highly placed officers who are committed to fighting crime, unbribable, but very fallible morally and socially. The books aim to shock and amuse by featuring two men who virtually run a police force but also conduct personal relationships in very unconventional, even dubious, ways.

I’ve said it boringly often, but the one book that influenced me above all was The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins, for its dialogue and its subtle treatment of the fink situation.

Q: Iles is cruel to his chief, Mark Lane; fiercely protective of his own daughter; lecherous toward young women; yet he ultimately rejects The Girl with the Long Back. Tell me about the genesis of this complex, appalling and attractive character and how he made his way into a co-lead role in the series after not being around at the start.

A: Many detectives in fiction are portrayed as having personality faults, their creators knowing that otherwise their leading characters would be saintly and non-credible. But the faults tend to be forgivable and often part of macho-ness. Drinking too much because of job stress is a favourite failing; one I’ve used myself. I came to feel this kind of ploy was a sentimental cop(!)-out. I decided it would be interesting to see how readers reacted to someone with rather more off-putting (realistic?) flaws.

Also I tried to understand the psyche of a born second-in-command — someone who had a big job, but not the biggest. Iles will never make it to chief constable. What kind of personality does this produce? Answer: not eternally sweet; sometimes manic.

Q: Families have loomed large in the Harpur & Iles books at least since Protection, when a fellow crook kidnaps “Tenderness” Mellick’s son. Why the emphasis on families, particularly criminals’ families?

A: I like the whole organisational bit. A police force is an organisation, so is a crooked firm, so is a family. I try to put all three alongside one another and examine the friction.

Q: A related question: One motif of the series is the strange ways people build families in changing times: Harpur with his daughters and his young girlfriend. Panicking Ralph, comically overprotective of his own daughters. Iles, his wayward wife, and their baby girl. What attracted you to families as a vehicle for social comedy? For that matter, why daughters rather than sons?

A: This is part answered in 3. Daughters are more markedly outside the cop-crook scene. Sons might inherit a criminal empire. Girls probably wouldn't. I solicit their detached view, which can be funny and sharp. (Not all readers like Harpur's daughters, though. Too flip and know-all?)

Q: Families are not the only recurring motif. There are the hypersensitivity about sending officers undercover, and the persistent girlfriend who presses Harpur and Iles to probe the case of her weak, hapless criminal mate. Among other things, these create continuity. Talk about these recurring themes, why you keep coming back to them. Feel free to name any that I missed.

A: I’m a bit wary of pointing out recurring themes. They might look like repetition. However, undercover is an obsession of mine. Possibly it’s the influence of spy novels – le Carré etc. I’ve written spy novels myself and occasionally do one now: in fact, I currently have one on offer to a publisher, and the signs are promising. Secrecy, cover-ups, play-acting fascinate me. Harpur and Iles have to rehouse and hide a former super-grass in Wolves of Memory. Undercover gives great openings for dramatic irony — that is, where the reader know more than some of the characters. This can give an added complexity and shiftiness to dialogue.

I find the tensions and moral/legal/ethical problems of undercover work a very useful story source. For example, how far in criminality should an undercover officer go to convince a crooked gang he’s a genuine member? Think of the undercover officer in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. I won't describe the tricky points there, in case it gives away the surprise, for someone who hasn’t seen the film, but they are very tricky.
(Read Part II of the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

But wait! There's more!

John McFetridge is not the only Detectives Beyond Borders favorite offering an online preview of his latest work these days. Declan Burke, McFetridge's sometime partner in meta-fictional crime, posts a sliver of the sequel to his first novel, Eightball Boogie, over at Crime Always Pays.

Mr. Burke, you have the floor:

"The heat was fierce but I was still half-dazed, so I dived in and grabbed his ankles. One of his moccasins slipped off as he came free and at first I thought I’d ripped him in half. Then I thought he’d dropped a dwarf on the Audi. Strange the things you think about when you’re trying not to think at all."

"Finn played good music but you had to be in the mood. Some nights he went off on a jag: Cohen, Drake, Walker, Waits. Santa Claus with a straight razor in his mitt, black dogs howling down the moon. Spend long enough driving a cab listening to Finn, you’ll wind up with a Mohawk cruising underage whores, trying to think of a politician it’d be worth the bullet to plug."

"‘Might as well stay up after I knock off. Want me to grab a DVD?’

"‘Something black-and-white,’ he said. ‘The kind where they crack wise and smoke a lot.’

"I swung around by Blockbusters and picked up
Duck Soup, Groucho on the cover tipping ash off his cigar."
That's good stuff.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A glimpse of John McFetridge's latest, or What do rock and rollers really want?

I am pleased to report that John McFetridge offers a preview of his novel-in-progress over on his own blog. I am even more pleased to report that the man keeps getting better and better.

No one mixes action, humor and wistfulness better than McFetridge. In this new book-to-be, members of a 1970s rock band with the wonderful name of The High have cast off their adult lives, reunited, gone back on the road, and turned to crime. What happens when old rockers get back into the life? This:

"Cliff started to follow, felt a hand on his arm and looked around to see two very hot chicks, had to be teenagers, but maybe legal, looked exactly the same; long blonde hair, tight jeans, low cut tees, like twins, same serious look on their faces and he said, `Hey ladies, looking for some fun?'

"One of the girls said, `No, we're looking for our Mom, she was talking to you before.'"
Read my posts about McFetridge here – scroll down – including an interview that will give a fair idea of what makes him tick as a writer.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bits of humor in Breathing Water

I'll start from the end, with Timothy Hallinan's author's note: "Those of you who find it difficult to believe in the Bangkok that's depicted here should know that millions of people feel exactly the same way about the real-life city."

And this, about a quarter of the way into the book:
"You were–" He turns to Dr. Ravi and says, in English, "I don't know the Thai. Tell him he was appalling."

"I think ... " Dr. Ravi swallows. "I think he's already gotten that message."

"A bodyguard can level with him and you can't? What kind of amanuensis are you?"

"I'm not an amanuensis. I'm his media director."

"Goddamn it," Pan says in heavily accented English. "Speak Thai. Or translate."

Or this:
"The activity had the unfortunate effect of making him look even more like a monkey, one who is on the verge of inventing a tool but probably won't."
That sentence could do without "had the unfortunate effect of," and for all I know, it may be changed before the book goes to press. But this matters little because the passage is a gorgeous description of a big, dumb, powerful thug. And that matters. The big, dumb, powerful thug is a crime-fiction staple, and Hallinan makes it fresh. Breathing Water is a pleasure to read.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Authors in the blogosphere

A couple of authors mentioned occasionally in this space have taken to the blogosphere. First up is Scott Philips (right), whose odd new collection of items bears the marvelous title Pocketful of Ginch. I don't know what ginch is, but the blog looks like fun.

Matt Rees has had a blog for a while, but he's picked up the pace lately. One post that might have readers howling for his head is a scathing discussion of Stieg Larsson's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I don't expect the book's partisans will enjoy what Rees has to say, but he more fully articulates than do most critics one fault that even some of the book's fans acknowledge, and he has some fun with another aspect that I had not seen discussed previously.

Question to readers: What's ginch?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thai anxiety: Timothy Hallinan's Breathing Water

I didn't set out to do so, but I've read a number of crime novels recently that have crime writers as protagonists. Naturally this has had me looking for self-reference, and I found it, whether the authors, Chris Ewan and L.C. Tyler, intended the self-reference or not.

Timothy Hallinan's Poke Rafferty is a different kind of author – a travel writer based in Bangkok – and Breathing Water has him serving rather more demanding editors: a shady, ultra-rich Thai patron of the tarts who grants Rafferty the right to write his life story as the result of a lost poker game, on the one hand, and on the other, competing groups of shady, ultra-rich Thais who have their own ideas of the tack the book should take and who threaten Rafferty and his wife and child if the book does not turn out right – or if he writes it at all.

That's more pressure than authors usually get, and it gives Rafferty occasion for reflections that may strike a chord with writers whether or not they echo Hallinan's own experience:

"[Rafferty] figures he'll grab a table big enough to write on, clear a space, and go back to work on his list. Maybe start playing with scenarios. He's long known that he thinks more clearly when he writes, that the act of waiting for his hand to finish forming the words slows his thought processes in a way that opens them up, allows him to see three or four possible alternative paths rather than just the most obvious one."
Breathing Water is the third Rafferty novel. Two-thirds of the way in, it's a thriller that's hard to put down. Hallinan knows how to create suspense without resorting to obvious cliffhangers, and he knows how to maintain dual story strands and keep a reader wondering how each will turn out as well as how the two will come together. It says here that he also creates a convincing picture of Thai life among the obscenely rich and the desperately poor and that he does a neat job of injecting narrative movement into a purely expository scene – in this case, a dialogue on some realities of Thai politics.

I'll probably have more to say soon, perhaps about Hallinan's white-knight hero and brief, grim, humorous chapter titles. For background on Poke Rafferty and his creator, read the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Timothy Hallinan here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Friday, June 19, 2009

From existential angst to creative contest: Win a book!

L.C. Tyler, author of The Herring Seller's Apprentice and A Very Persistent Illusion, has graciously offered a copy of his next novel, Ten Little Herrings. The book goes to the first person who recognizes the targets of Tyler's spoofs in The Herring-Seller's Apprentice. Quoth the author:

"I'd be happy to offer a copy of my next book, Ten Little Herrings, to the first person who can identify which author I thought I was parodying in the Italian bit (clue: he's not an Italian and he didn't write crime) and which book by Sartre I had in mind. (Prize to be dispatched as soon as it is published in August.)"
Read more about The Herring-Seller's Apprentice here (scroll down). First with the correct answer gets the book, Mr. Tyler to be the judge of all answers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Existential angst in a post-Wodehousian Age: The Herring-Seller's Apprentice

No, really.

Ethelred, protagonist of L.C. Tyler's novel, is a mystery writer, several of whose discarded chapters Tyler interpolates in the final quarter or so of The Herring-Seller's Apprentice.

One of the chapters mocks the brooding nouveau roman of Alain Robbe‐Grillet and his followers, with its intense meditation on random objects. Another pokes fun at the brooding Italian fictional detective, with the loyal assistant, who likes to drink during working hours. A third is a fantasy on P.G. Wodehouse, with that comic genius' characters appearing in the guise of police.

Ethelred's protagonist, Fairfax, is a detective nearing retirement age without the rank his abilities should have earned him. He is without a wife, and he drinks often, without tumbling over into alcoholism. Ethelred has even, for reasons he does not quite understand, given Fairfax an interest in Norman architecture – you know, the strong, solid kind that prevailed before the slender fripperies and gaudy light of Gothic. Others will be more familiar with the details than I, but that moves in Morse/Wexford/Peter Diamond territory, I'd say.

Given that Fairfax begins with a typical English detective from a certain age (say, about 1970 onward) and has him try on then discard a number of other fictional-detective disguises – and given that The Herring-Seller's Apprentice was Tyler's first novel – it's reasonable to guess that Tyler thought about his own direction as a crime writer (and perhaps about the state of British crime writing as well) and decided to have some fun and let his protagonist do the same. One might even say he was exorcising some fictional ghosts.

Oh, yes. This is a mystery story. I don't know if it quite meets all the requirements of a fair-play mystery, but it does have a surprise ending along with a summation that offers a reasonable explanation for red herrings and wrong guesses throughout the story. A reader looking to do so just might be able to figure out the mystery. I did not, and it would be fun to know how many readers did.

(My emphasis on a serious side of Tyler stems from my first meeting with him, at CrimeFest in Bristol. In response to a question about crime writers who inject humor at grim, violent moments, Tyler said he liked Alan Guthrie – unexpected for a self-described author of comic cozy mysteries.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More self-reference

I wrote recently about a musical reference in L.C. Tyler's novel The Herring-Seller's Apprentice. In addition to citing Berlioz, the passage is self-referential; its narrator is a mystery writer relating a problem he once had writing a mystery.

Here I'll catalogue a few more such references. Along the way, I'll share some thoughts about types of self-reference – without ever using the phrase authorial consciousness.

The novel's first chapter begins: "I have always been a writer. I wrote my first novel at the age of six. It was seven and a half pages long ... " That's clever and endearing.

Chapter Ten begins: "If there's one thing that gets up my sodding nose, it's starting a new chapter and finding that the poxy narrator has changed" – narrated no longer by the author, naturally, but by his coarse-mannered agent. That's pretty funny.

Chapter Four: "Perhaps at no time other than our own could a man reach comfortable middle age without confronting a dead body in the cold flesh." Less directly self-referential, all the funnier for its jab at the tendency of amateur sleuths to find dead bodies in greater numbers than do members of the general population.

Throughout: several musings by the protagonist upon the craft of writing mysteries but, most interesting, the effect that the novel's "real" mystery – the disappearance and apparent murder of the protagonist's former and long-estranged wife – has on his own stalled writing career as the investigation of that "real" mystery deepens:

"(I)n the damp autumn Sussex countryside, I forgot such troubles as I had seemed to have and started to see a picture of a sultry summer's evening in Buckford.

"Fairfax is sitting at his desk. He is once more contemplating retirement. And he is deeply troubled, though it is not yet clear about what. ... What happens next? I don't yet know. But the story has started flowing. And this small trickle may gather pace and become a stream, then a torrent that will carry the story off, who knows where? But that hot summer night would be the starting point."

Now, let's see where the story ends.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Monday, June 15, 2009

For Hume the bell tolls


Its people may not have saved civilization like their fellow Celts across the Irish Sea, but Scotland has given the world some big-name thinkers from John Duns Scotus (probably) through R.D. (not k.d.) Laing.

I've always had a soft spot for David Hume (right, in Edinburgh) because he was a leading light of the great age when philosophers could write. Indeed, he was something of a publicist, considering himself

"as a kind of resident or ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation, and shall think it my constant duty to promote a good correspondence between these two states, which have so great a dependence on each other." (Emphasis mine.)
In addition to his essays, Hume wrote a History of England that remains readable to this day (though I seem to recall his having thought history more appropriate to women and philosophy to men). Still, in his essays and in his history, he wrote for an intelligent lay public, and what philosophers do that today outside France?

Hume was not the only big name in 18th-century thought who hung out in Edinburgh. He was not even the only hot shot in his courtyard. If you can read the plaque at left, you'll see that another famous Scot and his even more famous English friend spent time there, too.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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You get what you pay for

A pertinent post from Linkmeister asks "Have publishers fired their copy editors?" He headlines his post "Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy." I'd have called a similar post "Predictable, predictable, predictable."

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

The detective who almost loved Berlioz

I wrote during a recent discussion about Sherlock Holmes and English music that "I'd like see to how a Berlioz-loving consulting detective would go about his job. Berlioz ... might be the composer of choice for any number of hard-working but dissipated fictional detectives of a later time than his own."

"A Berlioz-loving detective would be great!" replied Lauren, who knows a thing or two about crime fiction and a thing or twenty-seven about music. "I can see the parallels between Paganini as Berlioz's benefactor and a glamorous celebrity hiring a private eye."

Lo and behold, here's the mystery-writer protagonist of L.C. Tyler's The Herring-Seller's Apprentice musing about a trait he tried to give one of his own protagonists:

"I once tried to give Fairfax an interest in Berlioz (I must have been reading too much Colin Dexter). Elsie had the blue pencil through that before you could say `Morse'. `Don't bother to develop his character,' she said. `Your readers aren't interested in character.' "
© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mystery brunch in Philly

Come meet, greet and eat with authors Dennis Tafoya (Dope Thief) and Keith Gilman (Father's Day) tomorrow, Sunday, June 14, 1 p.m. at:

200 South Street,
A la carte brunch is served at 1. Once you've splashed yourself awake, author presentations begin at 2, followed by a discussion and a question and answer period. The program is organized by Robin's, Philadelphia's oldest independent book store, at 110A South 13th Street.

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An (inter)view to a kill

Dana King posts an exceedingly generous interview with me on CrimeSpace and on his own One Bite at a Time blog. Many thanks to Dana for asking some good questions.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Friday, June 12, 2009

I joined a gym today ...

... To see if I could feel
I sweated like a tap
I'll soon have abs of steel.

Actually, I joined yesterday, but that does not lend itself as easily to paraphrasing Nine Inch Nails by way of Johnny Cash. And, unlike the narrator of the song I borrowed, I did not hurt myself. The experience was rather painless; I'll push myself gently the first few times out.

The gym I joined pipes in thudding disco, in the manner of gyms everywhere in America, but good ear plugs render the music almost tolerable. I can hear just enough to feel a sense of relief and well-being that I can't hear more, and I can ponder at leisure the mystery of why, if gyms must pipe in music, they can't pipe in good music.

I'd rather exercise in silence (and that means no cell phones on the treadmills), but if gyms must inflict music on their customers, why not flamenco? Or Irish reels? Or klezmer? Or norteño? Or Gershwin? Or the Stones? Or zydeco? Or samba? Or bebop? Or música popular brasileira? Or Spike Jones? Or ...

OK, what's your favorite exercise music?

Tomorrow: Back to crime fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

4x4: The meme

My fellow award-winning blogger J. Kingston Pierce has tagged me with a meme tailor-made for Detectives Beyond Borders. The meme is built around questions involving the number four, and I especially liked the ones that involved travel and places where one has lived.

Since Jeff expanded the list of questions from eight to ten, I don't feel too badly about making my own adjustments. And you can do the same.

Four places I'd like to go or things I'd like to do:

1) Visit the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia

2) Visit the Ajanta caves in India

3) Hike the length of Hadrian's Wall

4) Complete a short walk I began a few years ago, along the West Kennet Avenue from Avebury to the Sanctuary

Four places I've lived:

1) Montreal

2) Rome

3) Philadelphia

4) The Boston area, which leads to my own category of ...

Four places I've lived in the Boston area:

1) Waltham

2) Brookline, whose no-overnight-parking regulations seemed intended to keep out the folks from ...

3) Brighton

4) Somerville

Four places I've been on vacation:

1) Split, Croatia. By the shimmering blue Adriatic Sea, in a hotel within the precincts of Diocletian's Palace. One of the places that has inspired me with a desire to live there.

2) 桂林 (Guilin, China.) Sweaty, hot, amid spotty air-conditioning and other trappings of a section of China making the uncertain transition to Western-style consumer capitalism. Also home of the near-hallucinogenic beauty of the sandstone natural spires, and the only place I have seen anyone playing a guitar while passenger on a bicycle.

3) Israel/Palestinian territories. Alas, it's not as easy as it once was to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs to see blind old Muslim sage-like men praying at a site so fundamental to our sense of our own culture.

4) Istanbul, in particular Hagia Sophia, quite possibly the most influential building in the history of the world, and certainly one of the most beautiful. One can see the gallery mosaics up close, and there is something special about seeing and touching the rough, unfinished stone that lines the spiral stairways to the upper levels.

Four foods or drinks I have liked:

1) A nice, medium-rare steak

2) A good Brunello da Montalcino

3) Fresh raspberries

4) Deviled eggs

Four (with ties) books or movies I could read or watch again:

Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility

2) Roughing It

3) Any of books 7 through 16 of Bill James' Harpur and Iles novels

4) Seven Samurai, Stray Dog and, appropriately for repeated viewing, Rashomon

Four works of art before which I have stood (or sat) either in deep relaxation, as close as I get to a meditative state, or with a profound sense of receptiveness:

Piero della Francesca's Resurrection and Montefeltro Altarpiece (Scan by Mark Harden)

2) Velázquez's Las Meninas

3) Rembrandt's Bathsheba at Her Bath

4) Trajan's Column

Four literary, scientific, artistic or political figures from the past whom I'd like to watch at work or meet for dinner and drinks:

1) Giotto

2) Jane Austen

3) Mark Twain

3a) Charles Darwin

4) Jawaharlal Nehru. Anyone who can write a book of world history from memory and addressed as a series of letters to his daughter is a man to be reckoned with. Anyone who can write a book about his own country and call it The Discovery of India has a passionate intellect that's worth anyone's interest. And the man had a few practical accomplishments as well, I think.

Answers have begun to arrive from four people I think might take it upon themselves to answer these questions:

1) Sucharita Sarkar (yet another evocative post from one of my favorite writers in blogland.)

2) Seana Graham (good reading!)

3) Adrian McKinty (good reading about bridges and food!)

4) Maxine Clarke


5) Kerrie, who stepped in graciously for Maxine and talks about her journey from Paradise to Hell and back. Thanks!

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Chalk Circle Man: A mystery by Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas' novels amble far from the investigations that are the staple of the traditional police procedural. At the same time, few crime stories are as apt to leave a reader wondering so ardently whodunnit.

That's because Vargas' near-constant emphasis on her characters' quirks communicates that old French message that everyone has his reasons. Here, Vargas rather skillfully manipulates the reader (OK, she manipulated me) into believing at various times that any of four characters could be the killer, for the simple reason that each of the four has a reason or character trait or behavioral quirk that makes him or her a plausible suspect.

As in Vargas' Have Mercy on Us All, a series of odd messages triggers the mystery. There the messages were odd notes slipped into a modern-day town crier's news bulletins. Here they are visual: a series of mysterious chalk circles that appear in several Paris neighborhoods, each circle enclosing some odd object. Then, one night, a dead body, throat slashed, is found in one of the circles.

The very oddity of the circles lets the intuitive commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and the analytical lieutenant Adrien Danglard consider any number of possible theories. I'll let you read the book to find out what Vargas makes of theories.

For The Chalk Circle Man, Vargas' English-language publishers went back to the first Adamsberg mystery after earlier having issued books two, four, six and seven (the eight books include six novels, one graphic novel and a collection of novellas.) The reader of the books translated earlier will here learn the secret of Danglard's fifth child (I don't remember the story being told in the later books), and there are some delightful scenes of the single father Danglard and the children he loves. If I recall correctly, The Chalk Circle Man also offers more, and maybe even slightly different, physical description of Adamsberg.

For the most part, though, readers of Vargas in English may be reassured to know that Adamsberg has been Adamsberg from the start: intuitive, occasionally abstracted, infuriatingly prone to appear relaxed when Danglard is anything but, and entranced, upset and always worried by the mesmerizing Camille.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Down These Green Streets

Declan Burke has released a working table of contents for Down These Green Streets, the collection of essays, articles, interviews and short stories by Irish crime writers on Irish crime writing for which he is acting as editor and benevolent shepherd. Who's contributing? Just about everyone in Irish crime writing: Ken Bruen. Adrian McKinty. John Banville. Tana French. Colin Bateman (It's good to see humor represented) and many more.

Declan Hughes will no doubt speak for many of his fellows when he discusses American influences on Irish crime fiction. I'll also be interested to see what a woman of Ruth Dudley Edwards' political persuasion has to say about Liam O'Flaherty, some of whose revolutionary characters were anything but heroic. Eoin McNamee's contribution ("The Puritan soul and Irish noir") looks to be fascinating, too. And I wonder if Burke and McKinty will clash over the merits of early Irish crime fiction.

Visit Burke's Crime Always Pays for more details.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Echoes from the dead

Is it my imagination, or have many recent acclaimed crime novels built their plots around the lingering echoes of a decades-old crime , often involving a child? Tana French's In the Woods, The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr and Dennis Lehane's Mystic River come to mind, and I'm pretty sure there are more. And have Scandinavian writers written more than their share of such books?

What other novels fit this plot profile? And are such plots really more popular these days? If so, why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Arthur Ellis Awards

The Crime Writers of Canada have bestowed the 2009 Arthur Ellis Awards. The winners include Linwood Barclay's Too Close to Home for best novel, Howard Shrier's Buffalo Jump for best first novel, and Jacques Côté's Le Chemin des brumes for best crime writing in French.

Find a complete list of winners and a list of all nominees. The awards, by the way, are charmingly named for the nom de travail of Canada's official hangman, according to the CWC.

And click here for previous discussion of Shrier on the blog, including his appearance at the first cross-border Noir at the Bar.
N.B.: Here's a bit about Arthur Ellis, his name, his career as a hangman, and why that career came to an end on March 28, 1935.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

The day of the short(list) Daggers

The Crime Writers' Association has announced most of the short lists for the 2009 Dagger Awards. The International Dagger list for crime novels in translation reflects the continuing popularity of Nordic crime fiction, with three Swedish novels and one each from Norway and Iceland. Fred Vargas and translator Siân Reynolds, already two-time Dagger winners for Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand in 2007 and The Three Evangelists in 2006, are the only non-Nordic contenders on this year's short list.

    Shadow by Karin Alvtegen, translated from the Swedish by McKinley Burnett (Steven T. Murray)

    Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indriðason, translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb

    The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson, translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland (Steven T. Murray)

    The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

    Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy

    The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by Siân Reynolds
    Shortlistees for best short story include Sean Chercover, a guest at the first international Noir at the Bar earlier this year.

    Read more about the nominees on the CWA Web site here and in Barry Forshaw's Times preview here.

    © Peter Rozovsky 2009

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    Friday, June 05, 2009

    Did Watson like Holmes' music?

    I've long enjoyed this observation about the composer Edward Elgar in Ethan Mordden's witty and comprehensive A Guide to Orchestral Music:

    "[Elgar's] fame began with the `Enigma' Variations, a turning point for English music, for Elgar grew up in a country that had lost touch with a venerable musical tradition. Before the Engima Variations arrived, the national sound consisted of gentlemen amateurs imitating Mendelssohn; it is amazing that Elgar matured in so unstimulating an environment."
    One of those amateurs, albeit a fictional one, was Sherlock Holmes. The Enigma Variations' publication in 1899 places them smack in the middle of Holmes' own career as consulting detective and amateur violinist. So, for all you musicians and crime fiction readers: What role does music play in the Sherlock Holmes stories? Was Conan Doyle a stodgy conservative when it came to music? Was Holmes? Did Conan Doyle throw his hero into Reichenbach Falls out of despair that advances in English music were about to pass him by?

    (For more on Sherlock Holmes and music, see Ted Friedman's article "Music of Sherlock Holmes." Incidentally, I discovered as I prepared this post that Holmes never said, "Elementary, my dear Watson," at least not in any of Conan Doyle's stories.)

    © Peter Rozovsky 2009

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    Thursday, June 04, 2009

    Graphic Manchette

    With hat tips to Pulpetti and Duane Swierczynski comes news that Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel Le petit bleu de la Côte Ouest, previously available in English translation as Three to Kill, will appear in a graphic-novel version called West Coast Blues. This version, adapted and illustrated by the French cartoonist Jacques Tardi, is to appear this summer as the beginning a series devoted to Tardi and published by Fantagraphics.

    Here's what I wrote about Three to Kill and Manchette's other novel available in English, The Prone Gunman:

    "Manchette reinvigorated noir, inventing what French critics call the néo-polar, or neo-whodunnit, and if all that neo stuff makes you roll your eyes, stop and think for a minute: How many of the old-time hard-boiled writers make your blood run cold the way they presumably did for readers in the 1930s and 1940s? How mean, in other words, are Raymond Chandler's mean streets today?

    "Certainly Manchette's time, an age that saw assassinations, cover-ups at the highest levels, and revelations of the violence that attended colonialism and its end, could no longer be shocked by small-town or even big-city corruption of the Hammett and Chandler kind. Manchette restored that ability to shock, with tales of what power can do to those it finds convenient to crush. And he did it while remaining true to the roots of pulp. Heck, the guy even loved American movies and played the saxophone. How much more genuine can you get?"
    Click on the Jacques Tardi link above, and you'll see why I'm excited about this Fantagraphics release.

    Here are some previous Detectives Beyond Borders posts that mentioned Manchette, who figures — or at least part of him does — in Swierczynski's novel The Blonde.

    © Peter Rozovsky 2009

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    Tuesday, June 02, 2009


    I recently ran into a fellow who was in New York for BookExpo America as a fan. The man, whose professional affiliation is outside the book business, marvelled at fans' hesitation to mingle with authors outside scheduled events at book conventions. Those fans, he said, pass the evenings in their rooms among their newly acquired books, missing the chance to fraternize at the hotel bar with the people who wrote those books.

    I mention this because next up on my list is a book by an author with whom I chatted while sipping dry sherry at CrimeFest 2009: Chris Ewan. Seems to me that sort of thing is part of what conventions are for.

    So, here's a question for convention goers: What books have you read because you met the author or liked what he or she had to say at a convention, whether during a panel, afterward, at the bar, in the hotel lobby or otherwise?

    © Peter Rozovsky 2009

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    Monday, June 01, 2009

    Thank you, driver, for getting me here

    Two of my pleasant Bristol and CrimeFest memories involve buses. First was the tour guide, trapped by the demands of his profession on the open top level of a double-decker during a rainstorm while the rest of us fled to shelter below. There, we smiled sympathetically at his fretting and muttering over the still-operating public-address system. (My favorite bit: "[Bump, bump] Oh, heavens! My coffee's gone!")

    The same day, a large concrete plaza opposite my hotel hosted a fair devoted to old buses, of which there are apparently lots of devotees in Southwest England. This meeting featured buses, models of buses, books about buses and plenty of gorgeous old photographs of buses. Some of these exhibits were beautiful examples of mid-twentieth-century industrial design, and it's easy to understand the affection one might feel for them.

    It's a novel experience to see images so suffused at once with nostalgia and advanced design. One half-expects to see a long, thin tobacco pipe emerge from these buses, followed by the long, thin form of Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot.

    The Hay-on-Wye literary mega-festival has just wrapped up. Once again, Rhian Davies of It's a Crime! (or a mystery...) was there, blogging for the BBC. Read her reports here. Go here for more BBC Hay fever.

    © Peter Rozovsky 2009

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